Confession time: I can be kind of lazy! When I train cats (or any animals), I prefer to get the most out of my time in the easiest way. That’s one of the reasons I’m all about rewards-based training!
Rewards-based training (teaching an animal by creating positive consequences for desirable behavior) has many major benefits. Some very important ones include safety (reduced risk of aggression or injury compared to punishment-based training), humane concerns (treating an animal fairly and kindly), and effectiveness (it works!). But today I’m focusing on some less lofty reasons to train for rewards.
The Perks of Training for Rewards
Easy to Work into Your Day
There are two ways to incorporate rewards-based training into your day. One is with short, focused training sessions and the other is by using naturally occurring opportunities as they come up.
Dedicated training sessions are important if you are training a new behavior like a “come when called” or going into a carrier on cue. You are setting aside a time to specifically teach your cat what they can do to earn a reward. The nice thing is that they work best when they are short, especially for cats and their notoriously brief attention spans. Count out 5-10 treats and work until they are gone (that’s probably less than a commercial break).
Once your cat has the idea, training can continue in a more opportunistic way. Time to feed Fluffy? Grab a few kibble and practice her “sit” before putting the bowl down. Spot Mr. Whiskers and Mr. Pawz hanging out quietly on the same cat tree? Treat time! By using the food, play, and attention you give your cat every day and catching your cat in the act of good behavior, you can encourage the kind of behavior you want to see more of. This doesn’t mean your cat needs to earn every nice thing in their life but with rewards-based training you can easily get bonus training out of every day moments.
Okay to Forget or Make a Mistake
Training by punishing unwanted behavior is hard. In order to really stop a behavior with punishment, you have to punish every single time. Plus there are other challenges to using punishment, such as the risk of fear and aggression if you punish in the wrong way or at the wrong time.
Training with rewards avoids all of that. The more you reward a behavior, the faster your cat learns but if you forget or miss an opportunity, it’s okay. In fact, you can make the behavior even stronger by skipping the reward sometimes. While it is possible to make mistakes with rewards-based training, the big risk is that you accidentally teach your cat the wrong behavior. For example, you meant to redirect them to play with a toy instead of your feet but they learned to pounce on your feet to get you to pick up the toy! While annoying, this is not nearly the problem that fear and aggression due to punishment would be.
Training for rewards doesn’t require you to be “in charge” or “assertive” enough. There’s no battle here, just teaching. Anyone can use rewards, including children, so your whole family can build a relationship and create good behavior.
More Bang for Your Buck
Finally, rewards-based training can take you further, faster, than you might expect. Training for rewards typically comes with all kinds of bonuses for the effort. Confidence is one common side-effect. Also, an animal trained with rewards because easier and easier to train over time because they understand the system and want to learn new ways of getting their rewards. Through the magic of classical conditioning, new things and situations can become rewarding in their own right. When you pair a behavior with a reward over and over again, that behavior can take on the same emotions as the reward.
Getting Started with Rewards-based Training
If your ready to try training with rewards, it’s easy to get started:
1) Identify some rewards
What does your cat love the most? Food is often popular and easy to use. If your cat is very motivated, you can use their regular food but picking some special treats is usually helpful too. Also think about other things your cat loves like playing with a certain toy or attention. Get creative – maybe drinking out of the faucet could be your cat’s favorite reward!
2) Think of all the things you can reward
Look around and think about everything your cat can do RIGHT. Sitting quietly next to you, scratching their post, sitting on their cat tree, sharing the bed with another cat, using their litter box, the list goes on and on! Be generous. A cat will do more of what gets rewarded.
If you are dealing with problematic behavior, pick a couple things to reward that can’t be done at the same time as the unwanted behavior. For example, reward your cat for sitting on their cat tree if you don’t want them sitting on the kitchen counter or darting through the front door.
3) Do it
Start rewarding! Keep your chosen rewards close at hand so you can use them easily and often. Put a bag of treats in your desk or hide a toy in a kitchen drawer. While you don’t want to give tons of treats every day, you do want to have them ready when the moment arises.
If you find that your cat isn’t doing the things that you plan to reward, break down the steps or make it easier for your cat in some way. Maybe your goal was to only reward your cats when they were both calm on the cat tree together but that isn’t happening. Instead, start rewarding when they are in the same room. Making it easier at first let’s you start making progress toward a goal. If you’re not rewarding, there is no learning.
How Training for Rewards Can Help You Today
Whether your cat is a perfect angel or there are a few things you’d like to work on, rewards-based training can help you:
Few things in life can offer what training for rewards can. It’s easy to start, fun to do, and possibly life-changing for you and your cat.